With such expressions of joyful praise did David, and others, eloquently pen the poems which comprise the book of Psalms. The Psalms are the inspired response of the heart to God’s revelation of Himself, in law, history and prophecy. The Psalmists celebrate God’s moral law as the guide of human conduct; they extol the ordinances of Divine worship and rejoice in the privilege of access to the presence of Yahweh, in the Temple, as the crowning joy of life. Historical psalms supply lessons of Yahweh’s goodness and man’s ingratitude, providing a warning for the present, the support of faith in the hour of trial, and comfort in times of calamity. The Psalms are intimately connected with prophecy: the word “prophesy” means “to speak or sing by inspiration” (Heb naba, 1 Sam 10:10; 19:20), and we are familiar with the many Messianic psalms which speak of the work of our Lord.

As we commence the daily reading of this timeless book of Hebrew poetry, an overall perusal of the structure can provide an invaluable background and excellent material for personal or family Bible marking projects. The times in which we live call for a determined, organised defence against the systems in which we and our children are compelled to exist. Regular family Bible reading, study and study projects are the only true antidote for such sick conditions.

The Hebrew Title of the book of Psalms is Tehillim, meaning “praises”. Our English word, however, is derived from the Greek Psalmoi, equivalent to the Hebrew word Mizmor, and both words signify an “ode or hymn, accompanied by a musical instrument”. To some Psalms the Hebrew word shir (“a song”) is prefixed. Paul seems to allude to these three different words when he says, “… speaking to yourselves in psalms [tehillim], hymns [mizmor] and spiritual songs [shir]” (Eph 5:19).

Structure

It has long been generally agreed that the Psalms may be divided into five books as follows:

Book 1—Psalms 1 to 41 Genesis Psalms

Book 2—Psalms 42 to 72 Exodus Psalms

Book 3—Psalms 73 to 89 Leviticus Psalms

Book 4—Psalms 90 to 106 Numbers Psalms

Book 5—Psalms 107 to 150 Deuteronomy Psalms

Authorship

We know that the Holy Spirit spoke through men who were moved to pen words of poetic beauty and instruction (cp Hebrews 3:7 and 4:7), and it appears that many besides David penned psalms. Habakkuk wrote the “model psalm” (Hab 3), which has given the clue to the correct use of the titles, superscriptions and subscriptions to the Psalms. The authorship as clearly defined in the book of Psalms is:

David 73—Psalms 3 to 9; 11 to 32; 34 to 41; 51 to 65; 68 to 70; 86; 101; 103; 108 to 110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138 to 145

Asaph 12—Psalms 50; 73 to 83

Sons of Korah 9—Psalms 42; 44; 45; 47 to 49; 84; 85; 87

Solomon 2—Psalms 72; 127; although he composed 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:31,32), only two are preserved in Psalms

Heman the Ezrahite 1—Psalm 88

Ethan the Ezrahite 1—Psalm 89

Moses 1—Psalm 90

Titles and Musical Notations

Keeping in mind that the psalms were actually meant to be publicly performed by singers and musicians, the musical notations are very relevant and of great importance, not just to those who may be musically inclined, but for all the saints, because they contain messages to those who may be privileged to sing angelic songs in the not too far distant future. They are not simply meant to indicate musical distinctions or emotional responses, but rather they emphasise the character and spiritual intent of the author.

Above most of the psalms is a heading which is styled a “Superscription” and contains information relevant to the psalm. Taking the example of Habakkuk 3, we can see the purpose of this information at the beginning of the psalm—“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth”. The psalm concludes with the musical instruction or “Subscription”—“To the chief singer on my stringed instruments”.

In the superscription we have a statement of the psalm’s Category (a prayer), its Author (Habakkuk), and its Special Character (“Shigionoth”).

The subscription contains the musical direction—in this case, it is a psalm directed to the chief singer: the word “to” implies possession, so that although the psalm is Habakkuk’s, the chief singer has charge of it for special musical purposes.

In the book of Psalms we appear to find no such pattern. However, the notations are in fact there, but because the original Hebrew Psalms had no chapter breaks, the musical direction was incorrectly placed at the beginning of the psalm following that to which it rightfully belonged. For example, Psalm 85 contains the superscription “To the chief musician. A Psalm for the sons of Korah”. The phrase, “To the chief musician” really belongs as a Subscription to Psalm 84, because (on the basis of our “model psalm”, Habakkuk 3) it forms the musical direction which should come at the end of that psalm.

This means, therefore, that all the Superscriptions in the Psalms must be divided into two sections—(1) a subscription for the preceding psalm and, (2) the superscription for the following psalm, with both parts being read as part of the Psalm.

Sorting out the titles of the Psalms in this way forms a very useful project, which takes only a comparatively short time and can be enjoyed by all the family.

Superscriptions

Psalm—Hebrew mizmor, “to strike with the fingers, to make music accompanied by the voice”; the root word zamar is translated “sing praises” twenty-nine times.

Song—Hebrew shir has the idea of a spontaneous song of joy and praise in appreciation of God’s goodness. The word is used of the songs of Miriam and Deborah.

Maschil—Hebrew means “to be prudent and intelligent”; this is a public prayer of instruction (cp Psalm 51:13, which expresses David’s intention to teach others concerning sin and forgiveness, and Psalm 32, a maschil psalm, which seems to take up this very matter by way of instruction).

Michtam—from the Hebrew verb katham, “to carve or engrave”—a psalm for private prayer and meditation, teaching the reader that he should indelibly fix the principles of the psalm on his heart and mind.

Prayer—Hebrew tephillah meaning “intercession and supplication”. The same word is used concerning Daniel (ch 9:3) when he “set his face to seek by prayer and supplication with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” the mercy of God.

Praise—Hebrew t’hillah, from the root halal, “to be clear, to shine”, depicting the open, joyful countenance of one engaged in praise to Yahweh.

Shiggaion—from a root meaning “to extol, to call, cry or sing aloud”, in either great personal distress (Psa 7) or a bold, strong faith in God (Hab 3).

Song of Degrees—“Song of the Degrees”, pointing to certain specific degrees or ‘steps’. The ‘steps’ or degrees here referred to are those by which the shadow of the sun on the sundial of Ahaz went backward, as a sign to Hezekiah that he would have an extension of life. Hezekiah’s thankful response was, “Yahweh was ready to save me: therefore will we sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the House of Yahweh” (Isa 38:20). Fifteen years were added to Hezekiah’s life and he assembled fifteen songs—the fifteen “Songs of the Degrees”.

Subscriptions

The Chief Musician—“belonging to the Chief Musician”. The Hebrew word for “Chief” is natsach, meaning “to glitter or be eminent”. The same word is rendered “to excel” in 1 Chronicles 15:21. No doubt the Chief Musician, gloriously robed, would have presented a glittering spectacle as he directed the Temple Choir in praise to Yahweh.

Aijeleth-Shahar—“the hind of the dawn”, a phrase describing something of grace and beauty. It perhaps suggests the fact that the King was the object of affection and delight to his people (cp Song 2:8). The first rays of morning are likened to the horns of a hind, and the melody would thus signify the bursting forth of brightness and joy after the night of affliction.

Alamoth, Jeduthun, Sheminith—The three instructions were directed to various sections of the Temple Singers. Alamoth means “maidens”, indicating that the psalm was reserved for the female section of the choir; Sheminith means “eighth” and refers to male singers; Jeduthun was leader of a group of singers who praised and thanked Yahweh (1 Chron 25:3). In 1 Chronicles 15:20 certain skilled men are appointed “with psalteries over Alamoth [maidens]”, the female choir; whilst in verse 21 another group are appointed “with harps over Sheminith”, or the male choir who are “to excel” or, as it should read, “to lead”.

Al-Taschith—meaning “destroy not”; psalms for a time of humiliation, praying for deliverance from danger and adversity. The title brings to mind the prayers of Moses (Exod 32:11–14) and David (2 Sam 24:16,17) at such times.

Gittith—the Hebrew means “winepresses”, representing the time of vintage when the final fruits are gathered in. The psalms were used for the autumn Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating God’s goodness to Israel.

Mahaloth, Mahaloth-Leannoth—“Dancings” and “Dancings with shoutings”; the first, celebrating the victory over the Philistines, and the second, the bringing of the Ark to Zion.

Muth-Labben—“death of the champion”, celebrating the victory over Goliath.

Neginoth—the Hebrew means “stringed instruments”, indicating that the psalm was to be accompanied by strings rather than wind instruments.

Nehiloth—Hebrew should read n’haloth, meaning “inheritances”; the Septuagint renders it in Psalm 4, “her that inherits”. The psalm commemorates the possession of the Land by the people of God.

Jonath-elem-Rechokim—The Hebrew means “the dove of the distant terebinths” (terebinth was a tree producing turpentine). The phrase conjures up the picture of solitude and is used in Psalm 55, which describes David’s distress when he is forced to flee in solitude.

Shoshannim, (or Shushan)-Eduth—“Lilies” and “Lilies of testimony”. The first relates to the Spring Festival of Passover bringing to mind God’s goodness to Israel as their Redeemer; the second, also associated with Spring, was for singing during the Feast of Weeks, marking the completion of the grain harvest, but also bringing to mind the giving of the Law at Sinai.

Conclusion

What more could we desire in times of distress or grief, or in moments of joy and thanksgiving! The Psalms provide expression for every emotion and can be made our own personal words of communication to Yahweh in prayer, praise and song. Let us become more familiar with these beautiful expressions of the spiritual mind, that we may enter into the lofty realms of glory along with the sweet Psalmist and his fellows; for surely it is our earnest desire to sing with that wondrous choir of unequalled harmony united in praise and thanksgiving to the Father, in the Age soon to dawn.